Resilience Thinking: Optimizing for Efficiency

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Resilience

I read a brilliant little book on resilience titled, “Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World.”

In this little gem of a book, Walker and Salt point out what other resilience researchers and practitioners have noted, and that is resilience thinking is about ‘systems thinking.’

In systems thinking everything is connected, all of the systems and scales create together a larger ecology.  What the authors point out is how incredibly complex these systems are and how they are constantly changing.

The authors make some points that hit home for me, as they speak about those who try to optimize systems for efficiency, but fail, missing the point that complex, adaptive systems can’t be optimized at only one point of the system, as it decreases overall resiliency in the system.

An example is in order.  The fire department organization, like the one I used to work for, is a system embedded within a larger system.  The fire department connects to the community, politicians at the local, State, and National levels.  The fire department is connected to other fire and police departments through automatic and mutual aid agreements.  The fire department is embedded in a national incident response framework, and the fire department even carries hierarchical military components in organizing.  The fire department is also connected to the local landscape, the spaces and places in and around the community; including schools and local business.

In the years 2007-2009, the economy contracted.  Most of us remember this.  I was working as a chief fire officer during this time and our marching orders from the governing bodies were to cut our budgets by first, 10%, then 20%.  What began to happen during this time frame, within the fire department organization I worked for, was that the organization began to “optimize for efficiency” in one scale: budgets and finance.

As an example, cell phones were cut off, staff vehicles were turned in, not to be driven home, and a whole host of other cuts relating to one scale within the system: money.
Our local fire department began to tell neighboring fire departments that we could no longer work in an automatic aid agreement with them because it was not cost effective.

What happened during this time frame was that fire department leaders chose to focus on one scale for optimizing efficiency during the economical contraction, and as a result, the resilience of the greater system- the larger public safety ecology- was compromised.  Local, neighboring fire departments and public safety agencies were no longer training and working together and as a result, complex incidents requiring multiple agencies were less efficient.  There was less teamwork on account of optimizing for financial efficiency.

In our own personal lives, this happens to.  We decide we are going to lose weight for the New Year.  We take a look at our own system and we focus almost exclusively on diet and exercise.  In optimizing for efficiency in these two areas, perhaps we forget about our social life, our faith/wisdom life, and our academic/mental life.  As a result, we begin to lose personal resilience because our social connections and attachments are weak.

As humans, we are complex, adaptive systems living within complex, adaptive systems.  It’s important that we are careful when choosing to “optimize” only one scale of our system for efficiency.  We are better served to consider our complexity as a human and treat the system as a whole.

For example, it could be that a spiritual crisis is at root of weight gain.  This spiritual crisis may be a result of the local environment and the larger culture.

In the fire department example above, it’s easy in hindsight to see how the single focus on financials created a less resilient response system.  The fire department did what it always does, it applied a “command and control” mentality to one scale of a larger social ecology, not realizing that a complex system can’t be commanded and controlled in this way.

This is my take away from Walker and Salt’s book, too often we attempt to command and control a complex adaptive system at one point of efficiency, failing to consider the complexity of the system and further, failing to understand that most complex, adaptive systems can’t be commanded and controlled…at all.

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